The Austin Chronicle

Fantastic Fest Review: Barbarians

By Marc Savlov, October 5, 2021, 5:46pm, Picture in Picture

I’ve avoided dinner and birthday parties like the plague lately because: that damn plague of late, so it’s refreshing to know that, as Barbarians proves, at least the “dinner party gone to hell” niche genre is still going strong.

Director and writer Charles Dorfman’s debut feature is a corker of a good time to watch and rife with some juicy subtexts regarding class, British colonialism, and toxic [read: douchebag] masculinity. Having executive produced everything from VFW to Boys of County Hell Dorfman was in fact squirreling away the ancient secret knowledge of actually directing a film. And despite a serious third act flaw, Barbarians is a wickedly twisted treatise on the rich and the rest of us, or as Boots Riley of the Coup and Sorry to Bother You put it, “We’re the have-nots but we’re also the gon’-gets.”

It’s happy 30th birthday to Adam (Iwan Rheon, Game of Thrones's Ramsay Snow), ostensibly a cause for celebration with wife Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno), familial guests, and good cheer galore. Adam instead appears and acts as though he’s more mentally prepped for a funeral. Family gatherings, right? Tom Cullen’s Lucas is the first to show up at the sprawling, English countryside manse and his entrance reeks of obnoxious white privilege, machismo on steroids, and worse: he’s a high stakes real estate developer itching to get his paws on the land around the estate, for which Adam — a budding novelist — and his family have acted as caretakers for generations. Also along for this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad party is Lucas’s new girlfriend Chloe (Ines Spiridonov) and an ancient, pre-Christian standing stone that was spirited away from its rightful resting place only to be used as a piece of yard art for the night. Bad juju to be sure.

Barbarians is really a four-person character study with a slam-bang-trepanation scene added on for good measure. (That’s all the spoilers you get from me). As the night wears on and the alcohol begins to take effect, tongues loosen and what comes out is unpleasantly rapacious. The conversation, convivial early on, may or may not be a tip of the hat to the opening diner roundtable chit-chat in Reservoir Dogs, complete with a banal discourse on Encino Man and the total inability of anyone to recall Brendan Fraser’s name. That’s Dorfman’s scripting chops on display and the dialogue is both free and east, as among friends, or ominous in the extreme, as in a sequence where a viciously savaged and dying fox ends up in Adam’s kitchen. Chaos reigns, indeed.

There’s no way to discuss the film’s third act hard 180 into outright terror without including spoilers, so I’ll just cut straight to the film’s one major weakness. That all important third act is shot (by D.P. Charlie Harranz) in near total darkness. The gravity of the events happening onscreen is obvious but the focus on using (presumably) natural lighting gives the viewer eyestrain. It’s a frustrating situation because the rest of the film is gorgeously shot, lit, and production designed to a “T.” Granted, this is Dorfman’s Directorial debut, and the web of slow-boil suspense that weaves itself throughout the majority of the movie left me hoping that Dorfman continues to direct more genre films, and soon.

World Premiere
Fantastic Fest 2021, Sept. 23-30.
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